I’ve only had one recurring dream in my life. It’s quite hard to explain, as these things often are, but it involves me flying, or rather floating, like Alice down the rabbit hole, through some sort of shaft. Sometimes things go rather smoothly and I swoop and saw. Other times I’ll be flailing about, crashing into the sides as if I’ve had too much fizzy lifting drink. But I never reach the bottom. Or the top. It’s hard to say which way is up. Apparently this is the most common recurring dream you can have. But it’s a good ‘un. Here are three of my favourite gravity defying picture books .
First and most famous is Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, the second part of his ‘Wild Things’ trilogy. It follows the nocturnal manoeuvres of Mickey, a boy who drifts out of his bed (and his pyjamas) and into a dream metropolis.
Although it clearly comes from the same vivid imagination as Where the Wild Things Are, and similarly deals with the dream world of a cross little boy, In the Night Kitchen feels utterly different. Wild Things was based in a very recognisable fairy tale world of sea voyages and monsters, but here we are in uncharted territory, entering a landscape populated by objects and characters familiar to us from the real world, but which here become really very strange.
Actually it’s more than strange – it feels like an actual unfiltered dream, beautifully translated on to the page in a comic book style. The dough which expands and engulfs Mickey and is then ‘kneaded and punched and pounded and pulled’ has a particularly visceral quality. In that dough lies something of the texture of my own dreams, and their slow motion elasticity. Selma G. Lanes nails it in The Art of Maurice Sendak, observing that despite the lack of real threat in the story there is nothing particularly comforting about In the Night Kitchen.
‘Its message for child or adult, speaks not to the reasoning mind, and this causes uneasiness. Mickey the pilot’s maiden flight over the Milky Way heralds a pioneering acknowledgement in a picture book for young children of the reality and urgency of their dream lives… as important as and, in some ways, more important than those of their waking lives… Sendak has given his audience a bona fide child’s dream, curiously unmonitored by Maurice the adult.’
Sendak’s initial inspiration for In the Night Kitchen was a comic strip from his own childhood, Little Nemo by Windsor McCay. Indeed the opening and closing of In the Night Kitchen are closely modelled on McCay’s work, which would often begin with its hero in bed before being transported into a peculiar slumberland.
‘The dreaming child enters nightly into a world where live and inanimate objects transmute, grow legs like stilts or shrink to the size of Tom Thumb, like reflections in a hall of mirrors. There are glutinous Beardsley-like elongations, bulging art deco skyscrapers and infinite Baroque perspectives which are sometimes tipped on their side or inverted. Characters mountaineer across elaborate coffered ceilings, or slide down immense bannister rails which spiral, switchback and project them abruptly into starry space.’
Shirley Hughes strip cartoon book, Up and Up (1979) follows a small girl in her efforts to take to the air. At first her attempts, involving paper wings and a big bunch of balloons prove fruitless, then a giant easter egg arrives in the post; she climbs inside and eats her way out of it, stuffed full of chocolate but somehow now lighter than air. Possibly it was a Wispa egg.Soon she is defying gravity and prancing around the walls of her house.
Harassing innocent commuters as they wait in line for the bus
And interrupting lessons in the nearby school.
The story unfolds in a series of wordless set pieces, owing much to silent film comedy. The action begins on a small scale, but grows and grows until she obstructs the view of an inexplicably angry man looking through his telescope (at who knows what).
He gives chase, first with a big net and then in his ready inflated hot air balloon. A chase ensues over the rooftops, up and up, high above the town, until our mischievous flying girl pricks the pompous pilot’s balloon and sends them spluttering back down to earth.
Shirley Hughes delights in showing us this perfectly ordinary town from all angles; buildings are sliced into cross sections and we are given a unique birds eye perspective of the whole town. It’s a device that will be familiar to readers of many of Hughes’ picture books, most memorably the aerial spread of the fair in Dogger.
We learn in A Life Drawing that this lofty perspective comes from one of Shirley Hughes’ own recurring dreams.
‘I do still occasionally fly in my sleep over a 1930s seaside landscape, the West Kirby of my childhood, skimming the slate roofs and red brick bay-windowed houses, somnolent neo-Gothic and mock-Tudor, the children’s convalescent home with its glassed-in balconies and rows of mute iron beds, the complicated roofscape of the old Hydro Hotel, the boating lake and the golf course, then swooping out over the miles and miles of shining mud on the Dee estuary to that Never Never Land of North Wales.’
Our final flight of fancy takes us into the realms of the fairy story. Like Up and Up, Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith’s Princess Hyacinth tells the ‘Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated’. But here we are observing what the actual effect that floating might have on the day to day life of a child. Like Hyde’s classic, the Edward Gorey illustrated Shrinking of Treehorn, which used a child disappearing before our eyes as a way of dealing with parental neglect, here flight is used as a metaphor not for freedom, but a complete lack of it.
Hyacinth’s life is made miserable by her inability to stay on the ground. The King and Queen try anything they can to keep her there, tying her up and weighing her down with a massive crown and heavy robes. But one day as she is trudging around the park she meets a balloon seller, strips off her royal garb, attaches one of the strings around her foot and takes to the sky.
There’s a fine fairy tale ending too. She meets her prince charming when she breaks free and gets tangled up in his kite. But unlike the king and queen he doesn’t try and keep her on the ground, instead allowing her to enjoy her freedom, while he helps keep her grounded with his kite.
‘The problem about the floating was never solved and that’s too bad. But Princess Hyacinth was never bored again. Good.’